The Traveling Roadshow Of The Countess Maritsa is a book & rock opera about about growing up on the road with my International gypsy con-artist mother and three sisters. We had a van, dogs, some cats and a house chicken.
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The Travelling Roadshow Of The Countess Maritsa is a memoir written by Morgain McGovern, who grew up in a gypsy-like family of four rebellious sisters headed by their mother, Maureen, a brilliant con-woman on the run.
The book starts when I was seventeen, hiding out in a Parisian hotel room with my fugitive mother, who was wanted by the French authorities, British authorities, Interpol and the FBI.
As I lay in bed watching old “Kojack” reruns in a pill induced haze in our hotel room, I saw my Father’s episode dubbed over in French. The story then melts into our family’s history in “The Bionic Woman” and against the backdrop of his acting career in 1970’s Los Angeles.
But after one too many affairs on movie sets and theatre tours, Mom left her womanizing husband & took her four little girls (and a furry menagerie of our animals) on the road in a Winnebago.
Mom had a Samsonite case full of pills and borderline personality disorder, but her gift was a sharp knack for crime.
Mom and Paul Zindel 1959?
Her story is in some of his books.
In the “Mad Men” era of the mid-nineteen sixties, New York Herald Tribune journalist Maureen Smith met Don McGovern, a Broadway actor and stage manager (1963-66) of Lincoln Center in the East Village-who also moonlighted as a Mafia henchman.
He taught her everything he learned about crime, and while running a nightclub for a famous mob family in the meat market district, Dad got knifed in an argument with a “made” man- his boss- and the couple knew it was time to hit the road and drive to a new life in California.
At first, it was an ideal family life, having four little girls and living on our ranch in trendy Agoura. Mom’s sisters lived nearby in Los Angeles and provided some stability and guidance. We visited our father’s movie sets and went to studio parties with the glitterati, but the sepia toned memories and happiness were soon fleeting.
My father’s roles (Easy Rider, The Wicked Die Slow, The Bionic Woman, Killer Bees, the Last Detail, Sleeper, Kojack and others) gave him the acclaim he needed, but alcoholism and the lure of other women soon engulfed him.
The Wicked Die Slow 1968
One of his favorite stories was when he and his best friend Mike Whitney (Twiggy’s ex-husband) got drunk at our house in Laurel Canyon and then decided to cement over Ali McGraw’s footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, because they didn’t think she deserved the honor.
Caravanning across America, we lived in gorgeous houses in affluent areas then when luck ran out, we crashed in run-down motels across the country & abroad. Rarely staying in one town for more than six months, Mom raised us with artistic ideals, to seek truth and beauty, kindness and compassion.
Mom’s regular form of income was fraud, of all kinds, but she really came alive when she got on the phone- wheeling and dealing, putting deals together with rich people. Some of them were spectacular. She was gifted at real estate and quit claims-because she had the knack of knowing what land was about to be valuable, get the rights to buy it somehow and sell it to whoever really wanted it at a much higher price. She did this with no actual money of her own and it was dazzling. When it was working in her favor, her mind was her greatest asset.
Mom loved big, rambling farmhouses out in the country and my sisters and I would pick wildflowers and plant gardens at whatever new house we lived in, putting down roots in the ground, as if it were some sort of magic spell to make us stay in one place. As I planted, I knew we wouldn’t be there the next spring to see hollyhocks come up-but I left my mark on the earth, I had been there.
Wherever we moved, Mom would invite strange people to live with us.
She’d find them at the DMV or pick up people spare-changing for food outside of the local grocery store. We were a family like Robin Hood, doing the right thing and helping these strange drifters that Mom had found. She told us that it was the kind thing to do, people should help each other. But as I got older, I realized they were her henchmen.
They would live in our guesthouse, attic or basement and fixed things around the property. As time went by, Mom’s choice of house guests would get scruffier and lower on the moral ladder. Drug addicts, dealers, low-lifes, crackers, swamp trash, anti-socials, squatters, whores, trailer trash, junkies, whatever she could find-the dumber, the better. The more affluent ones had their van or trailer they’d been living in towed to our newest property.
They would lights cars on fire, burn things down, return stolen items back to a pricey store (for cash or store credit), stage a robbery or whatever else she could think of to collect the insurance money.
Sometimes, they would get high, drunk or just completely misunderstand Mom’s directions and fuck things up so badly that we’d have to move sooner than anticipated. Most of her vagabond victims would only be around for a few months and the smart ones moved on to roam after they collected their share.
She’d order one of them to roll a dying car with a shot transmission off of a cliff or flood the basement of whatever house we were renting. We would gather up all of our clothes we were sick of, broken electronics (and anything else we didn’t want or feel like packing) and throw it into the dark, smelly lake that used to be our playroom. She told us that the basement had flooded overnight and while it was an unfortunate accident, we could get new stuff this way.
When my oldest sister Meagan was about ten, she got electrocuted when she flipped on the basement light before Mom could warn her. She looked down and realized she was standing in deep, electrified water on the top step but her puffy rubber-soled moon boots saved her from death.
Before we’d leave town and move on to our next new life, our basements morphed into something that looked like the end scene of the movie Titanic, with a shaved head Barbie doll floating face down in the black water, dismembered and abandoned to a watery death.
But when Mom was really upset or nervous, she would set things on fire. Torching rental houses was her signature way of letting the world know that she was angry, horrifying hysterical landlords who wanted their three-month’s of back rent.
My sisters and I would wave goodbye from the back of the station wagon with our cats and dogs to the bad town that wasn’t right for us. We knew other people led normal lives but Mom told us the new town was going to be better. This town was bad luck.
In some classrooms we’d be popular and never want to leave, in others, we’d be pariahs and didn’t bother with doing our homework. We knew it was only a matter of time before we were on the road again.
After our eighth or ninth school, my sisters and I began to create cover stories to tell our newfound friends. Growing up in chaos created a defiant kind of camaraderie for us. The secrets of our sisterhood banded us together to kept us sane.We began to realize what our Mom was, but we didn’t have the word for it. I told friends that my mom was freelance writer with a gypsy streak. We knew that soon she’d find a real job as a writer, eventually.
The magic box of pills that also doubled as a seat for me in the front of the van.
With warrants and detectives trailing us, the bills were paid with insurance fraud, clever scams and bad checks.We wanted to believe our mother- that the next move was permanent and we would settle down, but we all knew better.
Our father called occasionally, and told us he never wanted to be a parent, just an artist in a garret.
Mom’s brilliant mind would come through and save us every once in awhile.
When I was in the 3rd grade, she auditioned and became a contestant on a trivia game show called “Sale Of The Century”. She gave the other contestants a beating, and after a long week of tapings, she won $75,000 in cash, plus a bunch of prizes and a trip up to Monterrey, California.
Her winnings on the show changed our nomadic lives. For the first time, we went to a school for two years in a row and even though we still took road trips in our custom van up to Oregon, Washington and Idaho; we had a home to go back to in Los Angeles. We had food in the refrigerator and the cops didn’t come by to arrest Mom every few months. It was peaceful.
Things got bad again once the money ran out. We ended up living in a motel on Sepulveda Boulevard for three months until Mom could think of something. I’ve driven by that motel recently and families are still living there.
Three years later, we were living in a motel in Upstate New York when Mom found out that the game show was hosting a “Return Of The Champions” and wanted her to be a contestant on the show to defend her game show queen title-in Australia.
The show was a huge hit in Australia and the producers were willing to fly her and one other person to Melbourne and put her up in a hotel for at least a week or so. She convinced them to pay for Me and Erin to go, since we were both under fifteen. Mom had warrants out and detectives looking for her in New York-so a trip to Australia to escape certain jail time in New York was an opportunity that Mom couldn’t refuse.
When we got to Melbourne, There were about thirty other “champions” from various “Sale Of The Century” shows around the world, mostly Britons, Americans and Australians. I’ve never seen people who loved to drink so much (and for free) in a hotel bar.
All the contestants were shuttled to the studio every day, and the producers would randomly pick the contestants who would be on the show for the day. Everyone would come back by five or six for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the lounge. Mom finally had a 9 to 5 job.
Erin and I would take the trolley all around Melbourne and explore. It was brilliant.
It was in the lounge where Mom picked off her prey. Mom liked pills more than the drink, so she would wait it out while the other contestants got drunk and mingled. In 1989, there was no Internet. It was hard to tell if a credit card was stolen and they were run by hand machines and carbon copies. The stores would only phone in a suspiciously large purchase, so it would be weeks before English banks would know anything was up.
Mom’s day to finally be a contestant on the show came-and she didn’t do well at all. She was very sick on the day of the taping and only made about $1700. It was time to go back home to the states.
We tried to look on the bright side, even though she didn’t bring in the kind of money we needed, at least we had gotten a free trip to Australia. We tried to reassure her, the cops from New York were probably looking for somebody else by now.
For a last hurrah, Mom rented a car and drove us to see the fairy penguins march up the beach at dusk, back to burrow in their sand cave homes, all nestled in and warm with their furry families in the cliffs overlooking the Tasmanian sea.
We started to drive the car north, through the Snowy River Forest and then up to ninety mile beach where massive waves and a blue wall of water could come up slowly or quickly, and if you weren’t paying attention, you’d get soaked sitting 100 feet from the faded water lines. We were on our way to Sydney-we were going to fly back to the States from there.
After we got back to New York, we crashed at Katie and Meagan’s apartment. My sisters and I couldn’t joke about this anymore, we all started to unravel. We needed a Mom and she was wanted by the police all over New York for various thefts and fraud.
Mom checked herself into fancy mental hospital because she said that the cops can’t arrest you if you’re a patient. The four of us were on our own until she could figure something out. She was there for a few weeks when the cops found her and it was a matter of time before they figured out a loophole in the mental patient protection law. Mom checked herself out and announced that we were moving to Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina. Tomorrow.
Rich people from Ohio, New York and Connecticut usually go to the Carolinas for a vacation and expect to find golf, warm weather and Margaritaville. They’d have someone safe watch their kids at the hotel so they could go out and party.
Mom was waiting for them like a grandma spider nanny in a beautiful hotel. After the kids came back from swimming, tennis or golf lessons, Mom would put them to bed and help herself to whatever cash or jewelry she didn’t think the parents would miss. Most of the time, they hadn’t realized they’d been robbed until they got back to their northern homeland and sobered up.
Mom had a way of making sure she only robbed super rich people who on their last day of vacation and were leaving early for the next flight back home.
“I was a boutique thief, I never robbed anyone who’d be left with nothing”, she told me recently. “Morgain, there is no honor among thieves, I’ve never seen it. But I never stole from someone who’d be left with nothing. I stole from the rich.”
Detectives were searching the house on a regular basis and Mom got arrested for grand theft, robbery and insurance fraud. Meanwhile, New York State had several warrants out for her and was trying to extradite her back.
My sisters were done. They decided to move back to upstate New York and break free from Mom, but I couldn’t. For years, we had been raised on a roller coaster ride of torched houses, cross country road trips, international hotel rooms, run down motels, a gunfight, foreign authorities, Australian game shows, addiction and madness.
After Mom posted bail on Hilton Head, my sisters had already left and I was alone with her. Mom presented me with a new plan. We were going to start a new life in England. I knew how sick she was, but I couldn’t leave her. She had already programmed me to protect her.
In England, I started going to a posh school in Kensington and started hanging out with my friends. I tried to stay away from home as much as possible. While I was at school, Mom had started doing some very bad things and ended up in Holloway Women’s Prison, in London. The detectives confiscated my passport and I was trapped in London, homeless for the rest of the winter.
After Mom escaped from her bail hostel in Oxford, we left England in the night. From there, our journey took us to Spain, France and back to the United States-which escalated into a FBI manhunt and America’s Most Wanted.
For years, we were raised on a roller coaster ride of torched houses, cross country road trips, international hotel rooms, run down motels, a gunfight, foreign authorities, Australian game shows, drug and alcohol abuse, a Parisian dungeon, French nuns, a house chicken and madness.
The Travelling Roadshow of the Countess Maritsaa story about the American dream unraveling.
As the Internet age came upon her, Mom was caught just before her segment on “America’s Most Wanted” aired, and she was sent to Federal prison for several years. One detective in Fort Bend, Texas thought she was affiliated with the notorious “Irish Travelers” band of gypsies, but nothing has ever been proven.
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There are no heroes in this story. If you are looking for a happy ending where everyone ends up okay; stop reading this now.
The tingling was leaving my fingers and my toes were warming up; I was beginning to thaw out. I had to get up off the radiator; it was almost dark and there was no place to go and I had run out of options. I couldn’t even visit Mom at the prison until tomorrow. Everything was closed or closing and the snowstorm was too cold to walk in. I had to figure something out fast.
The radiator hissed in the corner like a friendly teapot and I had been sitting on it for while and was reluctant to leave my warm spot but I had to call Aunt Erin and get help before the school closed.
The kids were all leaving their classes and going home, going to the cafe with friends, going to the library to study, going to the tube station to go home to their safe bedrooms and homes with parents who cared about them and cared about where they were.
There was a phone on the desk was by the art class, and the art teacher had a reputation for being cool. I think she knew what was going on with my situation, but she never gave me the worried look the other teachers gave me. Her class was empty and I think she was puttering back in her art studio but hopefully she wouldn’t hear me call my aunt. If I ever made it out of this, I was going to putter around too.
The coast was clear, the classrooms were empty and it was quiet, I could call Aunt Erin and nobody would hear my shame. I picked up the phone to dial. Aunt Erin’s company had an 800 number and I pressed zero to get to an international operator. “Hi, can you please dial an eight hundred number for me?” The American operator had a twang in her voice and the line was kind of fuzzy and she sounded far away.
I thought about the telephone cables under the black and cold ocean that separated England from The United States and how far away my sisters were. I waited and heard the clicks until she put me through and then asked the operator at my family’s office to put me through to their house. I had barely spoken with anyone in my family since I busted my little sister Erin (named after Aunt Erin) from foster care here after the cops arrested mom at our house in the country.
I took my little sister straight to Heathrow after I sprung her from temporary foster care. We had no family here that could help us. They were all back in the States. I took her to the airport as fast as I could so they couldn’t take her passport and make her stay here too to testify against my mom. Then we’d both be homeless. Little Erin was living with our eighteen year old sister Katie in New York and had a return ticket back home. My oldest sister Meagan lived near them and was waitressing and putting herself through community college. I should have gone with them. I had made a terrible mistake coming here with mom.
I was the only one who came with Mom to England to start a new life again. A fresh start. We were going to do it this time. All of my sisters had stayed behind in the states and moved back to upstate New York after what happened on Hilton Head. Mom had bought Erin a plane ticket for Christmas to come to England and was trying to convince her to move to England and live with us when she got arrested and taken to Holloway. They arrested me too but let me go when my school told them I was in class when the crimes were committed.
The day after Christmas, cops came to our house out in the country and raided it. Later on we found out that while I was at school and trying to convince myself that Mom had turned over a new leaf; she had been robbing manor houses and selling the antiques she had stolen. I knew something was up, but not sure. It always made me nervous and uneasy when I was happy and things were quiet at home because I knew from experience that it wouldn’t last. Mom always ruined it. But this time she had credit cards with her name on them and I thought we were living on money from when her father died five months earlier. I knew it was too good to be true. Nothing happy and stable with mom ever lasted.
As soon as we moved to England and I started school, I stayed away from Mom and the house she rented and spent it at school with my new friends. I’d go to the library or to their houses after school and I’d stay there as much as I could. I liked to see how normal teenagers my age lived and I hated going home to Mom. She had rented a huge house in the country, an hour and a half out from London and there was no reason to go there; it was mostly an empty house and I stayed in my room anyway. After everything that had happened in the States, I just didn’t like being around her anymore. I was spending so much time at school and in London; I didn’t care what she was doing anymore.
I was enjoying my freedom from her. I could take the train into the city and go to school and could stay away until almost the last train ran back. We had started to get into fights when I got home because she said I was never home anymore and didn’t want to be around her. I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I wanted to get away from Mom and live my life. She ruined her own life and she ruined anyone who was near her. It was only a matter of time before she did something terrible, again. I didn’t know how to escape from Mom. She had programmed me to take care of her and protect her, and I was trying to deprogram myself, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know what was normal anymore.
Aunt Erin would give me an answer or some encouragement or some ideas of what to do. I needed a friend and needed to talk to someone who knew Mom’s history and how dangerous she was. Aunt Erin picked up. “Hello?” She sounded weak and tired. I burst into tears. It was good to hear a family member’s voice. “Aunt Erin?? It’s Morgain..I’m so sorry..I need help..”I was babbling now. I needed someone to talk to who knew how crazy mom was. Aunt Erin had seen my mom arrested a dozen times, she knew how bad it was. She lived with us until I was about four. She knew. “Morgain, I just had a baby a week ago and I’m a mess. I don’t know if I can help you.” She wasn’t very friendly and seemed angry. I had forgotten that she was a mom now and just had a baby. “Look, I’m sorry but they took my passport so I can’t leave, I don’t have any money or a place to stay and I need help. It’s so cold outside. I don’t have anywhere to go and I don’t know anyone else to call.” I was rambling again. “I’m calling you from the school, all of my friend’s parents have tried to help but they’re freaked out and they want to know where my family is. Mom scares the shit out of them and the whole school knows she’s wanted all over in the States. I don’t know what to do.” I was heaving and breathing and trying to regulate my breath.
She spoke very quietly. “Morgain, I can’t help you until you tell me where the ring is that you stole.” I was stunned. “What?” I whispered. “What?” I repeated. “The ring you stole from Aunt Peggy’s house. I am not sending you a goddamned dime until you tell me where it is and where you sold it.” She was angry now. I started crying and stammering again, “I haven’t seen Aunt Peggy since we stayed at her house, when I was fifteen and we were on the way to Australia when Mom was on the game show. I never stole her wedding ring! Why would you think I would do something like that?!” I thought for a minute and then remembered that I had seen Aunt Peggy in L.A five months earlier at the funeral, just for a day. “Wait a minute….Wait… I saw her at Grandpa’s funeral five months ago and she never said anything and we used her station wagon and did errands! She never said anything to me then! Why didn’t she say anything to me then?? I love Aunt Peggy, I’d never do something like that!” I would never steal from anyone, especially Aunt Peggy. Her daughter little Peggy was my best friend.
Whenever I went to a new school and someone asked me who my best friend was, besides my little sister, I would say “my cousin Peggy!” because she was and I knew that we would always be family and best friends. Little Peggy had always been my friend when I had none and whenever I was in a new school, I thought of her and how much fun we had at her house and that she would always be my friend so I never felt alone. Mom and I went to their house in the Valley for her father’s wake about five months ago, the previous August when my grandfather died. But Mom and I stayed in a hotel near her and were about to start our new life in England. We were only in L.A for a few days and we only went to the funeral and then we went to Aunt Peggy’s house for the wake. Then we went to England to start a new life.
They were all tense at Grandpa’s funeral in L.A, but that was normal because we were never a real family in any sense of the word “family”.
Family gatherings were tense because they all knew how bad it was for us. Aunt Peggy was cautious around us, because Mom was awful to her and had been for most of her life. Aunt Peggy was great with kids and loved kids, but with us, she smiled a grim, tight smile and she seem relieved when she waved from the front door as were driving away, like she had seen a huge tornado and it had just barely missed her house and family. We were a problem too big for anyone to bear.
When I was in the 6th grade, we lived in a motel on Sepulveda for a few months and it was 3 miles from her house and we never saw her. For two months we lived in a dark and dirty motel room in a terrible area and my aunt, father and grandfather all lived nearby. Nobody ever came to visit or to save us from Mom. I should’ve went with my sisters when they left Hilton Head to go back, but I didn’t want to go. It was freezing and up in the middle of the woods in the Adirondack’s. We had already moved away once from Upstate to get away from the cold and poverty there.
Mom had promised me that we were only moving one more time; to a fresh start and going to use the money her dad left her to start over in England. Deep down I think I knew it was bullshit but I was sixteen and wanted to believe her. I needed a mom and was in denial. I didn’t know where else to go, my dad was abusive and I had seen him hit my mom, I didn’t want to live with him at all.
I didn’t want to move in with my Dad because he was a drunk and a mean one and also violent towards women. I had seen my father while we were in L.A for the funeral; but only briefly. The time I’d seen him before that, on the way back from Australia, he tried to throw my mom over a balcony at his ranch while trying to strangle her and the police came and broke them up.
The freezing snow was coming down faster and I waited for Aunt Erin to speak.
I should’ve moved in with my friend Amy’s parents and stayed on Hilton Head and listened when they offered me a way out. I should’ve taken that scholarship to Hilton Head Prep when the school offered me one. I should’ve stayed on Hilton Head with people who cared about me and had offered me a way out.
At the wake for my grandfather at Aunt Peggy’s house, she never said anything to me about her wedding ring missing and she let mom use her station wagon for us to go do errands. I remember mom wanting to use her car again before we left; and she said no, but Aunt Peggy never said anything to me about a ring missing or anything being stolen.
“It’s not her wedding ring. It’s another kind of ring.” She spoke again, “Morgain, right before you guys all went to Australia, Uncle Tim was taking a nap and saw you in their room and saw you take something off their dresser and when he woke up you ran out of the room.” Aunt Erin was was pleading with me. “Just tell me where you sold it and I can help you. We need to get it back, please, Morgain, just tell me where it is.” I could her her crying. I was shocked. But then again, I remembered how Mom’s family acted every time we came around. They were always angry and upset and uncomfortable because they knew we were abused and neglected and it made them feel bad. But not bad enough to call child protective services and save us from the madwoman.
“Aunt Erin, the only time I ever was in their room was to get some fancy Làncome makeup off her dresser because her daughter told me to go in there and get it for her. She told me not to wake her dad up from a nap. I swear. I wouldn’t do something like that. I’ve been working since I was fourteen. I’m not HER!!!” They thought I was just like her. That’s why they didn’t care I was homeless. I remembered that day perfectly. We were visiting Aunt Peggy’s right before we went to Australia. It was easier for them to dehumanize me. Otherwise they would have to step in and help me. It’s easier for them to tell themselves I’m worthless.
I remembered the day I got the fancy Lancôme makeup out of Aunt Peggy’s room for my cousin. Mom was wanted all over in New York state so when the offer came to her to be a return champion on a game show called “Sale of The Century” in Melbourne; it was a stroke of weird luck for her. She had been a big winner in Los Angeles, back in 1984. Little Peggy and I were the same age and getting ready to go out and meet boys and I remember we were doing our makeup and hair and I wished to God more than anything to have a bedroom like my cousin’s and a mom who was a teacher who kept a job and home and the cops never kicked the door in. I loved Aunt Peggy’s bedroom. She had a little screen hole cut out for the cats to come in and out and her whole room smelled like Yardley of London roses and Crabtree and Evelyn. Aunt Peggy’s bedroom was the only place that ever stayed the same.
I started sobbing again. Aunt Erin wasn’t going to be the hero. She couldn’t be the hero. There were no more heroes left. Only people that hated my mom and the people who thought I was like her. “I swear to God, I don’t know where it is but I do know you have to be eighteen to pawn anything, I was fifteen then!! You can’t pawn anything when you are underage; they won’t let you!!” I was angry now too. I knew this because I tried to pawn something when I was sixteen in South Carolina the year earlier, to bail my mom out of jail there and the Pawnbroker turned me away and got livid and wanted to know what kind of fucked up parent would make their sixteen year old kid pawn something to bail them out of jail.
“I’ve never stolen anything from Aunt Peggy, I swear.” I was sobbing and babbling again. I looked outside. It was pitch black and the snow was furiously coming down in the glow of the streetlights when I looked outside the windows. Down on the street, it was empty. Nobody was outside. Aunt Erin seemed satisfied that I was telling her the truth. “Calm down, it’s okay. I’m going to send you money. I have to go, I’m exhausted.” She said. I could hear a baby crying. “Oh thank you, thank you!!” Maybe I could rent a room somewhere until Mom’s court date, I think it was a few weeks away. And then I could figure out how to find a way out of this and get away from Mom. “I’ll send you $200 pounds, go to Western Union, it’ll be there.” She said. “Thank you Aunt Erin, thank you.” I whispered in a shaky breath.
I put the phone down and suddenly I realized that Aunt Erin had never brought up my mom in the conversation or that Mom was in Holloway Women’s Prison right now for theft. She never mentioned her felon sister who had been in and out of jails for theft for the last twenty five years. My mother bullied both her sisters; and even when she was in prison, they were still scared of confronting her.
Why they found it easier to blame me didn’t matter; it was pitch black outside and fifteen degrees and the school was closing. I needed to find a place to sleep. The $200 pounds she was sending would be gone quickly if I wasn’t smart; even if I could even find a cheap hotel in London that would rent me a room. Then I realized I couldn’t get a hotel room because I had no ID and wasn’t eighteen yet. The cops had taken my passport because they wanted me to stay in England and testify against my mom.
I pulled out a piece of paper from my pocket. On it was a phone number my mother had given to me the last time I saw her at the prison. I didn’t want to call it but now it was my only option. It was the phone number of Mom’s cellmate’s daughter. She had given the number to Mom to give it to me in case I was ever desperate and needed a safe place to sleep. She had told mom that her daughter and I were the same age. I picked up the phone again to call the number, the daughter’s name was Amanda.
My fingers were shaking again and someone had started to turn off the lights in the classrooms. The school was closing. I dialed the number and then someone picked up.
“‘Ello?” It was a girl with a thick cockney accent. I heard hip hop music in the background. “Hi Amanda, Uhhh… this is Morgain, I’m so sorry to bother you but I’m in a really bad place. I’m calling you from my school right now and they’re closing. Your mom and my mom are cellmates at Holloway and your mom said maybe I could crash with you for a few days until I can find a place to stay?” I held my breath. Her end was silent.
She finally spoke. “Oy, you’re American?” I laughed a little. “Yes. I am.” My breath was shaky. “What kind of music do you like?” She asked me. “Anything that doesn’t make me sad.” I told her. “Hahaha…okay, meet me at Holloway tomorrow in the visitors’ waiting room at Noon and we can make a plan. You can stay for a few days and we’ll see how it goes. Do you have a place to sleep tonight?” She told me her address and it was pretty far from where I was. I thought of my friend that lived near me, near the school. “Ummm, Yes, I think I can find a place at my friend Hannah’s tonight. ” I said. “Okay, good,” she said, “See you tomorrow. I’ll be with a man named Mr. Darby, he’s me mum’s lawyer.” She hung up. I started sobbing again. It was a mix of gratitude and relief. I had a place to sleep. She was a girl my age and we had something in common. I had made a friend.
I called my other friend Hannah from my rich kid school. She lived nearby and her mom said I could stay one night at her place, but only for one night and I’d have to leave the next day. She told me her Mom was terrified of my situation and didn’t want any part of this.
Tomorrow, I’d go to the prison and meet Amanda and see my mom and we’d figure out a plan. For a split second, the terror in my whole being subsided a bit. It was going to be okay. As I trudged out of the doorway from my old school into the freezing night air, I thought about the woman who I had never met who was in a prison cell, sleeping next to my mom in Holloway. She had made sure I had a warm and safe place to stay.
Maybe there was one hero in this story.
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This is the beginning of the story about how I started my company, “Moon Dogs Pet Sitting & Urban Farm” and how several animals came into my life, unannounced, unexpected and completely overwhelmed my life with love when I needed it desperately. This is the story about how they saved me spiritually and financially.
I’ve been playing around with different titles and ideas, but so far, this is the best one I could think of that shows what happened.
It was a very unhappy time in my life. I was coming to terms with my abusive family, no money and hated my stand-in job. Being a stand in is like being starving and having someone cook a bacon wrapped filet in front of you for three years while you watch. It’s frustrating being on set and so close to the job you dedicated everything in your life to; but everyone treats you like a ghost. They don’t see you. You are a prop for lighting.
Late one night, driving through the ghetto at two o’clock in the morning, a little scruffy white dog ran in front of my car from under broken down car where she was living…..
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The gargoyle winked at me. Her twisted faced startled me at first when she came to life; and I wasn’t sure what she was trying to tell me; but then I realized she wanted to be my friend.
She had an old stone face and had seen many to their deaths; but somehow, she knew I was innocent of this crime. I still wasn’t sure why I had been arrested; but I knew it had something to do with my mother.
She ruffled her wings like she had been sitting there for three hundred years waiting for the guilty to come by so she could heckle and hiss at them. She was very excited that they had a new visitor and hadn’t seen many American teenagers.
She was small for a gargoyle, smaller than her family members who lived in the eaves of Notre Dame across the street. Her family across the street were the rock stars of French gargoyles, the big ones; you’d see their pictures splashed across postcards and artwork; but this little one was an authentic gargoyle that not a lot of people saw. You would have to know where to look and where the real door to the staircase to the prison was, and only real prisoners of Le Conciergerie who had stayed in the her belly knew.
The good-looking blonde gendarme who was taking me through the small side door into the ancient prison didn’t see the wink; but I saw her little bat face and she saw me. She was trying to get my attention and flittered her wings a little, and winked at me again. It happened in a slowed down second; like the kind they talk about right before you die or think you’re going to die.
If you weren’t looking, she could have easily blended in with the magnificent stonework of this ancient building, but she was the guardian of the door and I saw her, because I was supposed to. The artist who created her had perched her perfectly so her face was the last thing you saw on your last day of freedom.
You only saw this little one when when you realized you were looking at the sky for the last time before you died in prison from sickness or were about to be publicly guillotined.
She stretched and blinked a few times and looked around; then she became quiet and still and morphed into a little stone garden gnome again. The cops were looking up at her when they followed my eyes and she was just a little piece of stone again.
A piece of architecture.
The cops opened the door and gestured for me to go inside.
I looked up at her once last time.
She winked at me again and nodded to the officers; to let me know it was going to be okay, right before they led me down the circular stairs to book me into the prison of Le Conciergerie.
“Nom.” The little French nun with the sweet face looked at me and handed me a pen slowly; like an elaborate ritual. Like getting your first communion. The sweet faced nun didn’t speak English. None of them did and I only knew a few words in Latin and French.
I laughed softly because it sounded like she said “gnome” and I thought of my little friend above the door outside who would be very upset if she were called a gnome and probably would hiss at a nun if she were provoked.
We were sitting and the book was in front of both of us. It very large book that two of the nuns brought out and were huffing and puffing when the police had brought me in to them when the nuns asked the police to uncuff me.
The police had left and said they’d be back tomorrow.
“Zis is where we put bad girls.” The grumpy one had said, and gestured around the ancient prison.
The cops all laughed but then quieted down when the nuns gave them a look; then they turned and left and went home to their families.
I watched as two of the nuns struggled to carry the massive book into the underground cavernous room we were in and put it on the desk.
It was a huge book that took up most of the desk; the kind you would see at Hogwarts. I had never seen a book that old or big and they wanted me to sign my name.
The book’s pages were old and cream colored and smelled like books from an antique store.The familiar smell wafted up and made me feel like I was safe.
This book was special to them and when they opened it to my page; was filled with signatures of people I would never meet but would know them in an instant if I ever did.
I took her pen and started to write.
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The icy slush water from the High Street Kensington sidewalk seeped into my boots again as I made my way out of the tube station and the cold blast of air that hit me as I came up the stairs was a reminder that night time was coming and almost here.
My hands were raw and cracked and they wouldn’t stop shaking. They would go from red, to pink and then to white when I warmed up, but the most irritating thing were my feet, I couldn’t warm them up, no matter what I did.
They were frozen, wet and numb and a large hole had worn in the right sole of my worn out boots; which were now thin from constantly walking and taking the subways and couch surfing at my friend’s houses. The left boot had a crack higher up on the left side near the seam and sole, so it wasn’t as terrible as the hole on the bottom of the right boot, but both feet and my socks were frozen and wet; all the time. The icy wind rattled right through my chest; and the combination was making me colder.
I knew wet and cold and sleeping outside and in doorways and hallways was not a good thing from all the war and history books I had read in the motels and when we were on the road growing up in the van with Mom and my sisters. I was Joan of Arc. I was a French Soldier fighting for freedom. I was not a match stick girl. I was a fighter who could handle this. I was not a victim.
I hurried along the sidewalk, while the last of the precious warm amber light of sunset was fading into dark purple shadows in the old stone buildings; and it was already incredibly cold outside. The city lights were on and little warm orbs of lights coming from the street shops comforted me. It was early evening on the high street and everyone was going home to their families.
I found out years later that this was some kind of freak, icy cold winter of 1990 and 1991 in London and I was just one of many unlucky homeless teenagers to be caught in it. February was the worst and the coldest.
I was trying to get to my school, Ashbourne Tutors to use their phone, I had to call my mom’s sister, Aunt Nora, and beg her for help.
I didn’t have a place to sleep that night and all of my friend’s parents had let me stay at their places already and my situation scared their parents. Their parents wanted to know where the rest of my mom’s family was and why weren’t they here trying to help me? I didn’t know how to answer them.
I ducked into Marks & Spencer to try to get warm inside, and pretended to be a shopper. Sometimes I would hide the department store bathroom first to warm up and clean up.
Nobody bothered me because I was blonde and white. They thought I was just another rich American teenager. I used the makeup in the beauty counters and pretended my mom was coming soon to meet me and we’d buy some stuff as soon as she got there. The pretty ladies behind the counter would give me smiles but then when they saw my scruffy boots, they knew something was up. Rich kids don’t wear old boots like that. My coat and black ensemble leggings were passable, but the beat up boots gave me away.
My mom was in prison, the cops had taken my passport so I couldn’t leave the country in case they needed me to testify against mom.
It was two months after my seventeenth birthday and I wasn’t old or savvy enough or emotionally stable enough to get a job in a foreign country. Every time someone asked me where my family was, I would start crying and mumbling.
I was trying to make it to my school, Ashbourne Tutors, before they closed, so I could use their phone and call my Aunt Nora. She would help me and save me. There was nobody else to call, she was the only one left who could help me.
My father was a raging, abusive alcoholic and the last time I saw him, he had his hands around my mother’s throat and was trying to throw her off a balcony in California.
My mother’s father had died; but he had stopped stepping in to clean up her horrible messes when he got remarried about 10 years earlier.
My mothers’ brother Bernie lived in Connecticut and was wealthy and had a good job, but he and his wife, who was my godmother, didn’t really seem to like me. I think they thought I was like Mom, and apparently I had too much emotional baggage for the people of Darien, Connecticut to handle.
Mom’s family would handle her regular arrests that left her children defenseless & homeless by throwing some money her way when we lived in motels for months, but it never really helped the actual problem, because she would always fail, again. We’d move into a house and live there for three months, and then move again when we got evicted.
Our mother was unemployable and mentally ill, and everyone in her family had looked the other way for most our lives and gave her minimum amounts of money to move us out of motels; but the real problem was that she wasn’t a fit parent and nobody wanted to step in and raise four physically and emotionally violated girls; especially when they resented their sick sister so much. They last thing they wanted to do was to raise her four daughters.
Mom’s family didn’t step in when were she had the Charlie Manson types living in our garage when we were toddlers, or when we were homeless kids living in motels and dangerous situations.
They weren’t going to step in now. They had made it really clear that they had their own families and I wasn’t part of it.
My mom’s other sister, Aunt Maggie lived in California and was a schoolteacher. I had seen Aunt Maggie when we had gotten back from Australia when mom was on the game show there; and she wouldn’t let us sleep at her house when we got back. We had taken a shuttle from the airport after a 24 hour flight and she turned us away and told us to go to a motel. It looked like she was done with Mom abusing her and said stuff was missing from her house after the last time we stayed, so we weren’t welcome there anymore.
Aunt Nora was the only one I remember with any warmth, she used to take us roller-skating in Balboa Park, all of us four girls and our two cousins, little Maggie and Matt. We’d all pile into her green Volkswagen Bug and putter off to the park to skate. She was magnificent, beautiful and tall, with flowing strawberry blonde hair that gleamed in the sun. We’d listen to the album Hair and watch her dance and spin around with her hair fanning out and spinning like a gleaming hummingbird. We would make up dance routines and I planned my own rock opera and Aunt Nora would be the star of it.
Aunt Nora was there at the hospital when I was born and the first memory I have. She had lived with us until I was six years old. But in 1980, she moved away to Texas and married the computer guy from MIT and they started their own computer company and they started having their own kids.
She was my mother’s youngest hippie sister who married a smart guy from MIT when he was on his bike; when they were in their 20’s and were now a multi-millionaires. She and her husband owned multi-million dollar a year semiconductor brokering business in Houston that they started out of their kitchen. My oldest sister Meagan was close to her. Meagan was moving to Houston soon to go to college and be Aunt Nora’s nanny. She might’ve even been there now, I didn’t know. I hadn’t talked to them in awhile because after Mom got arrested the day after Christmas; the cops locked the house we were renting and I moved in with friends and started couch surfing.
My oldest sister Meagan was a waitress at Pizza Hut and putting herself through community college. My second oldest sister, Katie was 19 and just had a baby and was raising my youngest sister, Erin, who was 15 and living with her in upstate New York. We all had been working since we were 14, because we had to. Sometimes Mom would ask for our tips. My sisters couldn’t help me, and I didn’t want to call them to tell them I got tricked by Mom, again. They already knew. I was the only one who really thought Mom would spin our lives into gold and we’d magically start a new life in England and she’d get a job as a writer.
I had fallen for the story again. The one where we moved to a new city and she started over and became the parent I needed her to be.
But I knew Aunt Nora would save me, she would come out here and help me get out of this horrific mess and take me home to live with her and her family, she loved me. I could help nanny too. I knew she would save me from Mom, homelessness and this terrible, terrible cold shivering that I could not shake. She would send help.
My hands stopped shaking when I finally got to the third floor of my old school, Ashbourne Tutors, above Kensington market. They had these old fashioned heaters that hissed in the hallway when you came in and I would sit there and warm up until I felt better.
The Headmaster was a kind Canadian and had let me go there for free after he had found out my Mom was in Holloway Women’s Prison, but I didn’t go to class anymore. I couldn’t sit in class with all these super rich happy kids who had houses and parents and a bedroom to go home to and things to look forward to. They showed me everything I didn’t have and parents I would never have.
I would go to the school to get warm and see my old friends. I used their phone when I needed to and leave as soon as I could. I was the homeless kid of a con artist and didn’t belong there.
Lately I was going to the school to use their phone at night, before they closed, so not a lot of people would still be there. I didn’t want to see my old teachers anymore. Late evening was the best time to come into the school, get warm and maybe steal a hot cup of coffee from lobby without seeing too many people.
The teachers at this school were so kind to me that I would start to sob uncontrollably. It was embarrassing. I didn’t know why it hurt more to have someone be kind to me than to tell me what a loser I was.
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Most people seldom realized my mother was insane when talking to her, but I knew.
When I was young, standing around my mother’s knees, I loved listening to her voice and watching people fall under her spell. At the time, I thought everyone loved her as much as I did. She had a smooth throaty voice that was rich yet feminine and it could turn into velvet when she wanted something. It wrapped around you like the warm blanket of an opiate high.
With all the adventures and carpetbaggery and pills in her life; she still could keep all the lies together in that racing, manic mind and spin tales so casually when dealing with her newest victim.
Mom told tales of woe that were simple for others to understand- but her specialty was finding people with money and getting it out of them.
My mother was a master illusionist. Most people who got swindled by her would agree later on; she had a way about her.
She was witty, educated and articulate-with a genuine protectiveness for the uneducated and downtrodden.
Her face would captivate you; she had bright blue eyes of a true Irishwoman and the smooth white alabaster skin of her Mother’s Polish roots that had bewitched many a lover during her days in Greenwich Village on Jane Street. Despite being heavy later on in life, she was always considered beautiful because she carried it well.
On the day she jumped bail after several months at Holloway Women’s Prison, she called me from a pay phone at her bail hostel in Oxford. If she stayed for her court date, she said, she’d be locked up for more than a year. She told me to start packing, because she’d be by to pick me up in an hour.
Looking back now, I realize I would have done serious time had I been caught helping her escape, but, I was seventeen and thought I could save her from herself.
Anyway, I knew it was time to get the fuck out of dodge; it was just a matter of time before I caught for performing the traveler’s check scam she taught me. The con had kept me fed while I was on the streets, but it was still considered theft in the eyes of her majesty’s courts and I didn’t want to end up sharing a cell with my mother.
It was around mid-afternoon when I heard her pull up to Amanda’s apartment in a black shiny London taxi. I was rushing around, packing up the last of my shit, when I looked out of the open window, down to the wet street and saw her getting out of the cab. I dropped my cigarette with a shaking hand and stared at her.
The few short months in prison had changed and hardened her, she’d lost weight and her face was ashen. For the first time, she’d been in prison for months, not just the few days that she was used to. I had told her over and over again that the computer age was upon us, but she kept running her old scams and ended up in all the systems. I began to believe her when she told me England was trying to kill us.
“We have to go,” Mom said as she walked in Amanda’s East end apartment in Stoke Newington. She looked around at the bare living room and her eyes settled on me, she was edgy and restless. “Now.” she looked at her watch. She didn’t bother to chat with Amanda; who was by the window, smoking a silk cut.
I looked at Amanda and she understood. She and I were the same age and became friends in a strange way. Our mothers were cellmates together at Holloway.
Mom had begged Amanda’s mother to let me live with her daughter, because it was winter in London and I was sleeping on the streets or at friend’s houses. Her mom showed great compassion and Amanda and I bonded immediately.
We had a lot in common-we liked to get as drunk as we could on Thunderbird, smoke hash and laugh at the absurdity of life.
Amanda had a thick Cockney accent and was of mixed race. She wore matching Addias hoodie tracksuits and always had her hair up in a ponytail. She was Sporty Spice. She had creamy cafe latte skin, with a spattering of freckles across the bride of her nose and her eyes were hazelnut colored with flecks of copper. She should have been a Bennetton model, but she was stuck in the ghetto and didn’t know how to get out.
Amanda had talents and one of them was being a professional when it came to rolling spliffs. She taught me how to roll quick, small ones you could puff on and toss in the bushes if a cop was nearby. Pipes were too much evidence to carry and get busted with. Joints, as we Americans call them. Spliffs in England.
The Brits also have a different way of smoking out. When you smoke weed in a circle of friends in the U.S, you take a hit and pass it. In England, one holds on the joint for a few puffs and smokes 3 or 4 hits while everyone chats. If you pulled that shit in California, you would get your ass kicked for Bogarting the joint. Puff, puff pass, bitch. Everyone needs to get high. Now.
Oh, and they don’t have weed, grass, chronic or any of the green stuff over there. They smoke hash. And if you smoke too much or try to smoke it like grass, you will puke in a few hours.
Reality was something we didn’t like to deal with while our mothers were in prison together, so we got high. And drunk. But high during the day. We knew that if you drank during the day, you were an alcoholic. So we smoked hash.
Amanda would pull out a brown sticky square of hash and flick her lighter over the end corner of it. She would carefully sprinkle the crumbly brown hash over tobacco, which had been ripped out of a Silk Cut cigarette. She rolled it up in a Zig Zag paper and light it. She squinted as the cloud of smoke wafted in her face.
She took a long drag of a joint and held it in as she spoke, “Morgain, I’m just a half caste girl living in the ghetto. ” She blew it out and her eyes watered. “What kind of job can I get? I ain’t got nuffink, mate. No fucking education, no fucking money, not even me Mum.” She shook her head ruefully. She looked up at me, like maybe I had the answer.
I replied, “At least your mum left you a house to live in when she went down in flames, my Mom left me holding a bag of shit. Pass that spliff.”
We’d dissolve into the giggles and insulate ourselves against the harsh world with laughter. The highs from the hash would take us to an innocent place where we could be like children again. She was the only girlfriend I’ve ever had that also had a mom in prison and we could tell each other the truth.
I’d smoke and smoke, taking deep long hits into my lungs, so it would fill up the aching in my chest. The fuzzy, creeping feeling that spread through my body made me feel safe.
I felt bad that Amanda didn’t have any sisters to share the misery of having a parent in Prison. At least I had my three sisters when Mom got arrested in the States. I thought about them and knew they were worried about me, but there wasn’t anything they could do. They didn’t have money to send me and were trying to stay alive themselves. And, I was too ashamed to tell them that she’d tricked me, again.
Now, Mom was back. I wasn’t sure why I felt so uneasy around her, but I could tell that she was in the dark places of her mind where not even I could reach her. My mother was gone, replaced by a strange, sinister woman with a wild, leaping look in her eyes.
Usually when it was time to run, Mom would laugh and say to us, “Let’s get this show on the road, kid!” or “You go where I go amigo!” but not this time.
I was packing my stuff in the bathroom and I caught my reflection in the mirror as I looked up from the sink. I was very pale and my eyes had a strange glimmer to them as well. They weren’t my eyes, they were like a street cat’s, skittish and not sure who to trust. Mom’s long stay in prison must have changed me too.
I said goodbye to my friend, thanking her for saving my life and from the bitterly cold London streets where I had been wandering, humiliated after I had to leave my posh school and friends in Kensington. I lugged my suitcase down the stairs and we got into the waiting taxi.
As the taxi puttered along to train station, I took a long last look out the window. When we fled from the detectives in the States, Mom told me she was going to turn her life into something good here and get a job as a writer. I had loved this city and all the hope it held for us in the beginning. Then everything had turned dark, like it always did before we had to leave in a hurry.
Waterloo station was coming up and I thought of the long trip before us. Getting out of England was going to be hard. Mom was supposed to be back at the bail hostel by now and it was getting dark. They would start looking for her soon.
Mom and I got out of the cab and headed towards the train station. She was slow and creaky from age and I turned around to wait for her. The wind whipped her grey hair up in tufts, in a comical way, like a picture of fun times from the rollercoaster rides at an amusement park. She smiled at me and I knew I couldn’t leave her. Another round in prison would kill her.
We could start over. Mom would never be able to get a job with all the police and detectives looking for her, but somehow, starting over sounded right.
Going to France would buy us some time to come up with a solution. Maybe the detectives would realize she was mentally ill and needed help, not prison.
She was supposed to be back at the bail hostel in Oxford by dusk, and it was definitely dark now. We still needed another hour on the train south to the ocean. Then we had to get on the ferry in Portsmouth. Somehow, we had to get on the boat without Mom getting caught through their checkpoint and sent back to Holloway Women’s Prison.
When we got to the Waterloo train station, I realized sporting events were finally good for something. The British were invading France for the weekend so see their soccer team. A massive crowd of rose-cheeked men from Liverpool in soccer jerseys were flooding the station, trying to get on the last trains to the ferry. The were jumpy and excited, looking for a fight and a fuck.
These Celtic men were on fire and they were determined to stay as functionally drunk as possible. They carried cases of beer under their arms and most had backpacks filled with more supplies in case they ran out on the nighttime ferry ride over.
For once, the ancient rivalry between these two countries helped women. Well, they helped two Irish American gypsy women evade the law. Thanks, soccer.
As we went into Waterloo Station, I hugged her. Then we went over to the ticket window to buy our tickets to Portsmouth, where the ferry would be waiting.
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